Vacations, Staycations and Other Memories of Summer

Bermuda 6Shortly after my fifth birthday, my mom enrolled me in a summer day camp. Mom put me in a group of campers that were mostly four year olds, perhaps to give me a possible height advantage that I could never reclaim at any other point in my life. But her plan backfired. When I told my fellow campers that I was five, none of them believed me. One girl said, “You’re not five, you’re four.” Another girl boldly proclaimed, “You’re not five, you’re three!” Another girl claimed I was two, the next said one and the final girl who was just a bit meaner and cleverer than the others said, “You weren’t even born yet!” At the time the words really stung and I continued to be annoyed when people thought I was younger than I actually was until about ten years ago when I decided to just keep celebrating my 29th birthday over and over again.

Another source of embarrassment was my inability to walk in flip-flops during our two daily treks to the swimming pool. While everyone else glided effortlessly in their flip-flops, I shuffled along like I was on a Nordic Track just to keep the damn things on my feet. I was never successful and would fall so far behind in the line that they had to send out a search party to find me. Walking without shoes was not an option, because much of the campgrounds were covered in wood chips of a similar size and texture to the glass shards that blanketed the Saxon Hall playground. Since I was a flop wearing flip-flops, I was given an option far worse than walking barefoot on glass; walking in slide sandals that were the footwear of choice for old Russian men. After that summer, I begged my mother not to send me back to camp again.

Shibley 2A few years later, I decided to give camp another try and I went to a new camp in Long Island. This was a far better experience and it was here that I improved my swim stroke and learned how to dive. But it wasn’t all marshmallows by the campfire and pony rides; it was here that I also discovered a whole bunch of other stuff I suck at. A few times during the summer, we got to go to the go kart area. Getting the gas and the brake right while steering proved too much for me and after nearly mowing down a group of fellow campers and two counselors, I was asked to just sit and watch the other campers. Note to everyone still trying to figure out why I don’t drive: Now you know.

Another camp activity I sucked at was making things with lanyard. Whether it was the zipper, Chinese staircase or butterfly stitch, I just couldn’t get the hang of it and just like the abandoned bookmark that defined my second grade experience, I left camp without ever finishing a lanyard project. Fortunately, lanyard was an activity generally reserved for the 35-minute bus ride home, so only a select group of campers got to witness my lack of digital dexterity which kept the teasing to a minimum. Unfortunately, I was the last kid dropped off the bus every day which meant I suffered with my lanyard in silence the last few extra minutes of the ride when on three out of four days of the week the bus driver’s radio blared Gilbert O’Sullivan’s summer hit, Alone Again Naturally at the precise moment the second to last camper stepped off the bus.

That same summer, my family took our first (and only) official family vacation, unless you count what dad referred to as our annual six hours of hell on Amtrak. I got to go on an airplane for the first time and we went to Bermuda. We stayed at our first (and only) big fancy hotel without the words Holiday or Inn in the name. The hotel was right on the ocean and we got to rent water rafts while my father who couldn’t swim sat under a huge beach umbrella, liberally applying the 1973 version of Coppertone which offered about as much protection from the sun as whipped cream. When we exited the ocean, guests were required to soak their feet in warm water to remove the tar that was stuck to them. At the time, we kids thought this was just another cool feature of the beach; we didn’t realize the tar was petroleum residue from a 1973 oil spill off the coast of Bermuda. Now I understand how we were able to afford the trip.

While we loved the beach, the hotel had something we loved more; a game room. Prior to our trip to Bermuda, the closest thing we’d ever seem to a hotel game room was the ice machine at a motel in Altoona, PA. But now we had pinball and ping pong! We spent hours in the game room, which is probably how three kids with the pastiest white skin ever avoided getting a sunburn on a tropical island.

Bermuda 3Another highlight of the trip was the hotel restaurant. In our real life we ate dinner out once a year. But in our vacation life we got to eat out every night. My brother Jeffrey decided to take full advantage of this and managed to order the most expensive thing on the menu each night. Additionally, many of the dishes he ordered involved fire. When he ordered the Flambe Cherries Jubilee for dessert, cooked right at the table, the nearby wall caught on fire and after that we were only allowed to get ice cream for dessert.

Many of my summers were spent just doing things in the neighborhood. While now we have the fancy term staycation to describe vacationing without going anywhere, back then we called it what it was; hanging out with your friends, often being bored out of your mind and getting into all sorts of trouble. Some of the most dangerous things happened to us in the summer; we played Ringolevio and hid in ominous apartment building garages that attracted sketchy people. We crossed Queens Boulevard with greater frequency and hung out past dark even when we knew Son of Sam might be nearby. We ate red M&M’s before they were banned in 1976, we trespassed on other people’s property to pick mulberries, and once or twice we even jumped into the Park City Pool a mere ten minutes after eating a Chow Chow french fry. We watched way too much TV, went looking for poison ivy, risked our lives tormenting our siblings and stepped in enough dog shit to fertilize an 18-hole golf course…twice. We survived all of this and emerged without broken limbs, skin rashes, stomach cramps, blindness or arrest records; just great memories of summer fun.


Quiet Down; It’s New Year’s Eve

new-years-party-hatEvery New Year’s Eve at my house was basically a repeat of the year before. My parents were creatures of habit and had no expectation that January 1 would be any different than December 31 or March 12 for that matter. Nevertheless, they did try to create their version of a party scene which generally commenced around 9pm and ended at 12:01am until they realized we could start celebrating at 10 pm and wrap it up by 11:15 pm or earlier if we ran out of food.

I might have created high expectations for New Year’s Eve because this was the seasonal holiday that Cha-Cha’s family celebrated and every year in the 70’s they partied on New Year’s Eve like it was 1999. After most of the other kids had already broken or lost half the playing pieces from their recent Hanukkah and Christmas gifts, Cha-Cha was still waiting around for her loot which was kept under the tree until December 31. Between December 25 and December 31, I was frequently invited over to inspect her gifts by holding, measuring, and shaking them and taking educated guesses as to what might be inside the packages. For a kid who faked getting gifts, I was pretty good at guessing other people’s gifts or at least I could figure out the difference between a new shirt, a record album, and that bottle of Love’s Baby Soft that every 11-year-old girl hoped to receive as a gift and reeked from for years to come. I was allowed to stay at Cha-Cha’s house until the early evening, at which point I needed to leave so her family could prepare for the evening’s festivities. By 9 pm, their house basically resembled a nightclub; the bar was stocked and everyone changed into their fancy clothing while her mom blasted music that she was already dancing to.

Meanwhile, back at my house, dad had changed into his wife beater undershirt and mom was wearing a slightly more festive version of one of her housecoats with slippers. While the vibe at Cha-Cha’s house was 70’s style Studio 54, the vibe at my house was 70’s style Bowery.

The evening’s festivities included certain snack foods that never made an appearance at my house any other time than New Year’s Eve. Cocktails were served, but not the alcoholic kind. As a matter of fact, the only time of year I ever even saw my parents drink was New Year’s Eve, and even then it was usually a glass of champagne and never a cocktail. Yet the word cocktail seemed to be present in every food mom selected for the occasion. We often had Planter’s dry roasted peanuts during the year, but we had to wait until New Year’s Eve to get the cocktail peanuts. We ate hot dogs regularly but could only have cocktail franks on New Year’s Eve. Mom often made meatballs in tomato sauce, but only on New Year’s Eve could we have cocktail meatballs. I think my parents thought that if we were eating foods with the word cocktail in them, we were partying hard. One year, mom expanded the hor d’oeuvre list to include fondue, which she tried to pass off as dinner until January 5 when the cheese and bread supply were exhausted. By the next year we had switched to using the fondue maker to melt chocolate and dip fruit in it. It probably goes without saying that in my house, fruit and chocolate were never mixed on any other day.

For several years, while we had the piano that no one played, mom cleared all the junk off of it and for that one night only created a makeshift buffet table out of the piano top. If we put any food or even a tchotchke with a coaster under it on the piano any of the other 364 days of the year, mom would kill us. But on December 31, she let her hair down for a few short hours to ring in the New Year.

In between eating the fancier mini-sized versions of the same food I ate all year round, I would run into my room to check on Casey Kasem’s top 100 countdown that aired on the radio every New Year’s Eve documenting the top 100 songs of the year. I made a list of all 100 as they were counted down and tried to predict which songs would make the top 10. In 1975, I  started praying every day from November 1 on that the Captain & Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together would be the #1 song of the year. This consumed my thoughts from December 20 until New Year’s Eve and made it hard to eat or sleep until the big day. I jumped for joy when the song took first place and this was by far the most exciting thing I ever remember happening on New Year’s Eve. While most viewed the song as a silly little ditty about love, last time I checked,  the Captain & Tennille were still together, which is more than most people who were married in 1975 can say.

In the early years, before I discovered Casey Kasem and before anyone could pronounce the word fondue, my brother Jeffrey and I would try to figure out ways to create the party atmosphere that seemed so deficient in our home. One year we got the idea to take one of dad’s yellow legal pads and tear the paper into hundreds of tiny pieces. At midnight we threw it all in the air and screamed Happy New Year while watching our homemade confetti rain down on us. Dad was amused until about five seconds after midnight when he said, “Happy New Year and be sure to clean up all this pepairluch before you go to bed.” The New Year was off to a rocking start with us down on our hands and knees cleaning up our mess and counting down the 364 days we now had to wait for our next cocktail.

Hanukkah and the Festival of Fright

Sorry gameWhen I was four years old, I believed in Santa Claus. My Jewish parents weren’t quite sure how to handle this, and during our very early years, they begrudgingly indulged us in the myth of Santa Claus to the best of their abilities. On Christmas morning, my brothers and I would awaken to a modest circle of gifts in the living room. We tore off the wrapping paper with glee, only to find some strange practical gifts inside the pretty paper and bow. I received a slip to wear under my dresses and I remember my mother exclaiming, “Wow, how did Santa know you needed a new slip?” Even at four years old, I realized a slip was a strange Christmas present for an old man with a beard to bring you. My brothers both received plaid lunchboxes, because Santa obviously knew this is what they needed as well. We also got a paint set with the kind of paint that is as hard as a rock, needs water to make it at all functional, and cracks into tiny pieces after one use. After receiving our questionable gifts, we figured out Santa was a sham, decided Christmas was overrated, and slowly accepted our fate as Jews.

From that year on, Christmas was out and Hanukkah was the only holiday we celebrated in December (well, until 2013 when we got a new holiday, Thanksgivingukkah). At the same time, my parents stopped buying us gifts and instead started giving us money. Each year we would get a check for five or ten dollars which we were told we could “keep” in mom’s bank account. By age ten, my oldest brother realized that my mother was earning interest on all our Hanukkah money and wanted to stage a coup to regain what might have been as much as a few dollars in interest.

My mother insisted on having an authentic candle menorah, rather than an electric one, but she had a tremendous fear of fire. I was at least twelve years old before my mother let me light the candles without her shaking hand holding mine. Each night of Hanukkah, she would sit white knuckled by the candles until they burned out, clutching the glass of water that was always kept by the menorah in case of fire. By the eighth night of Hanukkah she was an emotional wreck, and it took her until the new year to recover.

We tried to embrace the festivities of Hanukkah, but after three spins of the dreidel and the 5th piece of gelt (Yiddish for kosher chocolate that doesn’t even come close to Ghirardelli), we lost the Hanukkah spirit and went to check out the menorah to see if any major pieces of furniture or family members had caught fire yet.

By the time I was in grade school, I realized that my Catholic friends were having all the fun with their tree trimming parties. My friends with non-religious families seemed to always have a tree as well, and even all the Jews on the block had Christmas trees.  These Jews ended up with the best deal of all, as they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. If Kwanzaa had been a popular holiday in Queens back then, I’m sure they would have celebrated that as well. In addition to celebrating both holidays, the Jewish kids I knew had roped their parents into Hanukkah’s “one gift for each night of Hanukkah rule”; a ploy I was sure was made up by Jews in the 1970’s in an effort to compete with Christmas and make Hanukkah seem like a more important holiday than it really was. I tried to “keep up with the Joneses” (or in my case the Levy’s) by cashing my $5 or $10 check at Bank of Mom and purchasing gifts for myself which I would then tell my friends had been purchased by my parents who seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing what I wanted. I gave up on the idea of trying to purchase eight gifts, because even in 1973 there was little you could buy once you divided $5 by eight.

I’m making up for all the Hanukkah gelt and guilt big time now with my own children. We now celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas (with a tree), as well as both of their birthdays during the month of December. Following the festivities and the obscene assortment of gifts (I have never given my kids money as a gift), I remind my kids not to ask me for so much as a stick of gum until at least August. Some years we light the menorah; others we don’t. But I’ve never had an electric menorah, and yes, now it’s my turn to sit white knuckled by the fire.

Trick-or-Treat Till You Drop

I grew up in a huge apartment building in Queens called Saxon Hall. The building has two wings that criss-cross like an X, just like the X in the building’s name  (yes, I think that was an intentional part of the design). With over 400 apartments, Saxon Hall was Halloween paradise for a kid. You could gather enough candy in one night to feed a small country for over a year, although in those days the thought of donating candy was just plain stupid. One kid was brazen enough to go around the whole building twice in one night. It’s not like anyone would realize he’d already been to an apartment; the swarms of kids were such that all the ghosts, witches, and Disney characters started to blur into one rather quickly.

I generally went trick-or-treating with my childhood friend, Cha-Cha. That wasn’t her real name, but no one could pronounce her real name, so this is the one she ended up with. The story of how her name and other first-generation American children’s names were butchered by ignorant residents of Queens will be the subject matter for another post another day. Cha-Cha and I always started out with the best intentions every year to cover all 400+ apartments in the building. We planned and strategized for weeks,  plotted our course, and visualized our success just like marathon runners. But somewhere in the middle of the second-half of  the race, we hit the wall and were carb depleted (obviously this is a metaphor since we were sucking down chocolate as fast as we could gather it along the way), but you get my drift. We were tired and sick of ringing doorbells. At this point we soldiered on and trick-or-treated selectively, based on who we knew or who we recalled giving good candy last year. There was one lady who once gave each of us our own 16-ounce chocolate bar. We believed her to be insane, since no one in any of the other 399 apartments was this generous, but we didn’t care. At this point in our journey, we also began the task of inspecting our bags for unwrapped candy which we accepted politely but then hurled off the building’s catwalk in case someone had managed to cram a razor blade or piece of glass into that ominous piece of  cherry string licorice.

Mom was generally in charge of selecting the candy we gave out to our fellow trick-or-treaters and she had a pretty good track record for making respectable choices such as fun size Milky Ways and Three Musketeer Bars. I held my head high as my friends collected their chocolate treats from my house and while I secretly wished mom would offer more than one piece, I felt I could live with that. But one year, my father  somehow got put in charge of purchasing the Halloween candy that we would give to trick-or-treaters and he returned with licorice…black licorice. I was horrified. The only thing worse than this was perhaps a box of raisins or the sucking candy offered by the lady in apartment 907 that had been lying around her house collecting dust since the Eisenhower administration. I pictured that black piece of licorice at the bottom of everyone’s bag until at least Easter when their mothers would force them to throw it away. I was ashamed and embarrassed;  I feared the worst; ostracism from my peers , teasing, or maybe even a beating from some bully expecting chocolate or at least a stick of gum. I survived, but dad’s candy buying duties were quickly relinquished and Halloween returned to normal the following year.

Then there were the costumes. No one in my family ever made the costume. Chalk it up to laziness or the lack of creativity in my household, or the fact that there was no way mom was letting me touch her stuff, but every year the costume was store-bought. I remember being a princess two years in a row. The mask was made of hard plastic, (probably the kind that is laden with dangerous chemicals, like everything else in the 70s) and had an elastic string that got caught in your hair and made you scream. And besides, it was impossible to sample the candy with that mask on. By the time we hit the third floor of the 17-story building, the mask was in the trick-or-treat bag. Cha-Cha always had a home-made costume and they were always great. I was convinced that if there was a Saxon Hall costume contest she would win hands down. My favorite was when she went as Pocahontas. She had a little suede dress, a head band with a  feather, and war paint on her face. Of course this was before the Disney movie and before dressing up like an American Indian was considered insensitive. It was during a time when we played games like Indian Chief (in school!), and before American Indian became a category of ethnicity on a job application. Even though I was a bit jealous of how cool her costume was, I also realized that her great costume could be used to my advantage to get more candy from impressed neighbors or those that just pitied her friend, the one with her mask shoved in her candy bag.

Back in those days, I don’t remember any parents having any rules about how much Halloween candy you were allowed to eat in one night. And as I recall, the candy didn’t last long. I remember placing my loot in a large bowl and most of the good stuff being gone in a day or two. Of course there was still that one sucking candy, the box of raisins, and that stinking piece of black licorice.